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On the Scent: Adventures in Perfume Layering

By (April 1, 2012) 12 Comments

Many a perfume lover will tell you that layering perfumes is an insult to the perfumers and a good way to ruin a piece of art that is already complete unto itself – like listening to Mozart’s Requiem and the Well-Tempered Clavier at the same time.

Others will say, lighten up. Even Jean-Claude Ellena, a master perfumer himself, advocates layering perfumes to create certain effects and highlight a material or facet of one or both compositions. You can find some of Ellena’s suggested combos, as featured in French Elle, on Bois de Jasmin. Some of them are tame – adding Pleasures to Diorissimo seems harmless, one being a super-clean musky-aldehydic floral, the latter a textbook lily of the valley. Together, they’d conjure images of an ur-mother doing ur-laundry. Others are downright shocking – only a true misanthrope would attempt layering Angel, the original patchouli gourmand, with the ‘90s aquatic L’Eau d’Issey. They are completely different and both loud as a vacuum cleaner.

As long as a little care is exercised (new combinations should be test-driven in the privacy of your own home), I find layering to be fun and rather creative – along the lines of modifying published recipes to your own tastes, or at least going crazy with your pizza toppings. It’s also a good way to get more use out perfumes that are a little boring on their own or otherwise unsatisfactory – add something you like and give it new life.

If you’re looking for some layering guidelines, here’s what I’d suggest:

Start with one complex perfume and one simple one: Ellena gives himself no such restriction, but I think you’ll encounter fewer layering disasters if you stick to this rule. Simple perfumes are those that give the impression of one or two single, recognizable accords. For example, Bulgari Black smells primarily of vanilla and rubber. Soliflores, as the name suggests, smell primarily of a single flower, however many materials they may actually contain; see Frederic Malle’s Une Rose. Chanel No. 5 is more complex and abstract, with citrus and aldehydes up top, a handful of floral heart notes and an ambery base.

Look for at least one note or accord in common: You can use one perfume to enhance an aspect of another, making it sweeter or more rosy, for example. Perfumes that share a common link, such as lavender or leather, are often reasonable candidates for layering. As a bonus, adding more complexity can help cover up any aspects of a perfume that you don’t care for.

If the prospect still frightens you, remember these three things. One, you can try out new combos on paper before you wear them. Spray the perfumes on separate smelling strips (you can make your own using heavy paper), then smell the strips together. Two, if you try a combo on skin and it turns your stomach, you can always wash them off. (I find rubbing alcohol, followed by a soap-and-water wash, to be more effective than soap alone.) Three, your nose can only perceive so much at once. Most of the time, one of the two perfumes you layer will stand out as more prominent to your nose, the second simply adding a little extra interest. You generally won’t smell every element of both perfumes at once.

Many of the layering experiments below came about organically, when I put on one fragrance and felt unsatisfied, so attempted to liven up the party with something else at hand. Others were deliberate experiments based on discovering common accords or notes.

I encourage you to share your own layering successes and failures in the comments!

Diptyque Philosykos + Bulgari Black

Are Olivia Giacobetti and Annick Menardo friends? I’m not sure, but there’s a secret kinship between these two minimalist fragrances, a chilly, almost metallic edge to their sweetness, which combining them amplifies. Philosykos is the ultimate green, woody fig, with the creaminess of coconut but no perceptible vanilla component. Fig accords often have a cold feel, with something that reminds me of air conditioning fluids or even, when things go wrong, freezer burn, and that’s subtly present in Philosykos too. Black doesn’t have that same palpable frostiness, but it is surprisingly cool for a vanilla fragrance; it smells like vanilla without vanilla’s usual balsamic warmth. And the leather sheds all references to animal hides, smelling instead rubbery, pliable, like a tire shop or new tennis shoes.

When layered, the rubber recedes into the background, and what you smell is a sweeter, more saturated version of Philosykos – or is it a greener, creamier version of Black? Intriguingly, it becomes hard to pick the elements apart, as if it really were one perfume. The vanilla is not enough to candy the figs; neither perfume on its own is a gourmand in the “yummy” sense, and the combined forces are not a gourmand either, but a strange, even unsettling hybrid that reminds me of the end of Chase Twichell’s poem “Erotic Energy”:

So that, years later, at the moment

the girl’s body finally says yes
to the end of childhood,
a green pail with an orange shovel

will appear in her mind like a tropical
blossom she has never seen before.

To further test the bond between these two perfumers, I tried Philosykos with Dior Hypnotic Poison Elixir too (also by Menardo). That combo was even better, and definitely more wearable. You smell mostly the Hypnotic Poison, a vanilla-almond root-beer-float of a fragrance, now subtly inflected with a cool green edge, like a mint leaf in the whipped cream. But wait ten minutes and the illusion shifts – it’s a fig tree with a side of marzipan. These ladies must do lunch.

Clarins Par Amour + Parfums di Nicolai Vanille Tonka

Eugenol – the smell we tend to recognize as cloves – is a component of the very complex smell of roses. It’s apparent in some roses more than others – I once smelled a cultivar called “Burgundy Iceberg” that was beautifully sweet and spicy, like a Christmas version of the typical rose bouquet. The more eugenol you add to a rose perfume, the more it approaches the smell of carnations.

Vanille Tonka, as I noted in a past column, packs a huge clove punch on top of its incense-vanilla base, so it occurred to me that I could make it more of a floral carnation perfume by adding some rose. Eugenol, surprisingly, is also a component in the smell of raspberries – something I first noticed while eating a raspberry-flavored Starburst of all things. (Geraniol, another major component in roses, can also be used to build a raspberry accord; see Ellena’s book Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent for notes on building other fruits.) So when I topped off Vanille Tonka with a spray of Par Amour – a foody, woody rose – I was pleasantly surprised with what I got: not a rosier clove, but an even fruitier rose! Although I think of Vanille Tonka as being the stronger perfume, it doesn’t dominate the pairing. Par Amour holds its own till the end, and the sum total is a kind of rose gourmand. The bases (Par Amour’s cedar and Vanille Tonka’s coumarin) blend beautifully, and Par Amour’s jammy rose tones down the spiciness of Vanille Tonka – which on its own can feel almost savory, with a heat like hot mustard. This remains one of my most surprising and satisfying layering experiments, and suggests that any clove- or cinnamon-heavy perfume (such as Feminite du Bois or Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant) could be paired to good effect with the right rose soliflore.

Estee Lauder Private Collection + YSL Nu

I have long thought of Private Collection as a sunnier, more ‘70s version of Ormonde Jayne Woman, a woodsy amber with the barest structure of a mossy chypre. Private Collection, more overtly a chypre, drops most of the sweet amber in exchange for more florals, while keeping the green, nature-walk feel, with pine and maybe a light touch of galbanum. In fact, it’s always struck me as a little too sunny – the juicy citrus and green top notes combine with the florals (notably, jasmine) to create an olfactory illusion of underripe banana. Granted, I like my banana a little underripe, and it’s a lovely scent, but the banana effect is distracting.

The solution? For me, it was to add back more amber. YSL Nu (in the eau de parfum concentration) also shares a certain similarity to Ormond Jayne Woman (to be clear, both Private Collection and Nu came years before Woman, but Woman is the first of the three I smelled), in that they both combine a cardamom note with a woody base of vetiver and resins. Nu also connects back to Private Collection by way of an elemi note (elemi is a tree resin that smells like lemon and pine). Despite being categorized as a spicy oriental, Nu is on the dry side. Cardamom doesn’t have the same spicy heat as cinnamon and clove; instead it’s smooth, citrusy and slightly peppery, rendering amber compositions fresher and lighter. Nu smells brisk and outdoorsy until the drydown, when a touch of vanilla and musk make everything darker and more luscious.

The two blend together effortlessly. They bolster each other’s florals (which I have trouble identifying in Nu alone) and conjure a subtle, soapy-clean cologne accord playing backup to the chypre structure. And somehow, they smell less intense than Private Collection by itself – Nu’s dusky incense has a softening effect, pulling you out of the sun-drenched clearing and deeper into the shade of the trees.

Serge Lutens Chergui + Cuir Mauresque

Some perfume lines seem designed for layering. The Jo Malone line, for example, explicitly encourages layering its scents, which are generally simple, legible and light in formulation (i.e., eau de cologne). Of course, it’s also a marketing tactic to sell more bottles.

The Serge Lutens line wouldn’t immediately seem to be conducive to layering, since most of the perfumes are complex and rich. But the adorable rep at the Barney’s counter in Boston suggested a few different combinations to me. Datura Noir and Un Bois Vanille were appealing on paper – in theory, I like tuberose and vanilla together, but on skin this combo smelled heavy and messy. I also tried to combine Daim Blond and Cuir Mauresque, thinking the latter would boost the leatheriness of the former. Instead it just smelled like an aggressively clean-smelling soap was getting in the way of my Cuir Mauresque. The third try, however, was a charm: leather and tobacco are natural allies, so I tried layering Cuir Mauresque with Chergui, a sweet tobacco oriental.

Layering rarely improves both perfumes, though it’s theoretically possible – usually you can improve one or get something that’s not better, just different. In this case, the CM improves the Chergui. To my mind, Chergui suffers from being slightly too sweet, with a puffy quality that suggests the presence of aldehydes or maybe salicylates – I’m no chemistry expert, but both of these have been used to scent hair products, and Chergui reminds me slightly of hair spray or gel. (See Natori for a similar effect – it‘s vaguely fruity, vaguely floral, chemical and diffuse.) Cuir Mauresque is on the sweet side as far as leathers go, but with a beautifully deep and long-lasting base, a magical concoction of musks and animalics (civet, according to the notes) and amber, which have a sturdying influence on Chergui, making it manlier somehow, but no less delicious. (Excuse my gendered language, but note that manning up Chergui made it more appealing to me, as a woman, so no prescription as to who should wear this is implied.)

By the way, I find that many Serge Lutens scents are better dabbed than sprayed, and this is especially true for Cuir Mauresque. If you attempt this combo I suggest dabbing both (handily, SL bottles are easily unscrewed, so you can dab using the tube attached to the sprayer).

Narciso Rodriguez for Her + Frederic Fekkai Femme Fekkai Sensuelle

Narciso Rodriguez for Her (the original eau de toilette in the black bottle) has an essential structure that has been copied many times: floral accord (in this case orange blossom) plus big patchouli-inflected musk. The suggestion of white florals and the diffusive musk make for something quite sexy, if not particularly subtle. (I like it best in the heat, when it really radiates off the skin.) It’s very attractive and recognizable – but it’s hard to deny that the orange blossom accord is pretty synthetic. Natural orange blossoms are vaguely citrusy but not very sweet, with indoles giving them a somehow prickly scent. The florals in Narciso Rodriguez are more blunt and smeared out – it’s the difference between tinkling windchimes and white noise.

I figured a good orange blossom soliflore would do Narciso some good, and the best orange blossom in my collection is Fekkai Sensuelle, a limited edition eau de parfum from Frederic Fekkai (a luxe-ish brand of hair supplies) that is sadly no longer available. (In its absence, try Lust Orange Blossom, which was my dry OB of choice before I fell for the Fekkai.)

There is some sense in which the better orange blossom improves NR for Her, I suppose, but smelling them together, I wonder if I don’t prefer their top notes separately. Because when I want Narciso Rodriguez, I want the full blunt force of its syntheticness, a wall of sweet, orange-colored musk – not actual flowers. Having the Fekkai in there is sort of like mixing neon and paisley. Likewise, the crisp, green, natural accord at the top of Fekkai Sensuelle needs no embellishment. That said, their base notes are simply lovely together. On paper they lasted for days, the blotters lending my desk nook a glowy aura of summer.

Dior J’adore + Perfumer’s Workshop Tea Rose

Like Narciso Rodriguez, J’adore is a nice perfume that suffers somewhat from a less-than-natural floral accord. Legend has it that the first version of J’adore, composed by the brilliant Calice Becker, was truly beautiful. But like so many Dior fragrances, the formula of this best-seller has been altered (i.e., cheapened). As Tania Sanchez put it, “it smells like one of its own knock-offs.” The current version is basically a restrained fruity-floral (the fruit notes are not as loud or sweet – “frooty,” as one perfume blogger puts it – as in fruity florals of a more recent vintage) with a slightly soapy, slightly metallic rose-jasmine accord. So to improve it, one might add either more and better rose or more and better jasmine.

Tea Rose is the best rose soliflore you can get for under $20, with a remarkably photorealistic profile and phenomenal projection. The enormous 4-ounce bottle will last you several life sentences. On its own, it can be a little hard to take, but it comes in very handy when you want to enhance the rose accord in a perfume that is only nominally rosy. Given its power, it’s best to apply just a bare spritz of Tea Rose over several sprays of the quieter, thinner J’adore. The result is like a store-brand, diet version of Joy. In the right proportions, rose and jasmine just make each other prettier; Tea Rose makes the jasmine in J’adore somehow greener, more petal-y, and the fruity, musky base in J’adore grounds Tea Rose, which on its own can feel cloying. It’s a definite improvement on J’adore, though Tea Rose can’t atone for J’adore’s rather sharp drydown, and they hardly make the best rose-and-jasmine scent around. (Sonoma Scent Studio’s recent release, Nostalgie, is a real stunner in this category.)

Theirry Mugler Innocent + Carol’s Daughter Almond Cookie

It’s often surprising which perfume occupies more of your consciousness when layering. The Thierry Mugler family of fragrances is known for monster sillage (sillage is the trail or cloud that a perfume creates around you). Innocent is quieter, perhaps, than its predecessor Angel, but it’s no shrinking violet. But I think Almond Cookie – another cheap thrill you can get at full price for under $30 – lends more of its character to this duet.

Almond Cookie opens up as bright and sweet as marzipan, but gets drier and more powdery as it wears down, eventually succumbing to the Play-Doh effect of heliotropin (an anisic, almond-like floral material). Innocent is a weird fruity oriental, with bright citrus and berry notes playing against almondy tonka bean (the coumarin note also seen in Angel) and a musky amber. I actually never noticed how pronounced the almost note is until I smelled it against Almond Cookie. The sweet almond in Innocent extends the marzipan section of Almond Cookie and supports it with tartness and a more complex base. Another pleasant combination based on my guidelines from above – one scent simple and one complex, joined by a common note.

Estee Lauder Tuscany per Donna + DSquared HeWood

I think of Tuscany per Donna as “my Tresor” – the more well-known Tresor has a similar structure (rose, vanilla, sandalwood and vetiver), but something in it – maybe the lilac or the grade of vetiver – turns my stomach. Tuscany per Donna is simpler, sweeter, and cleaner, almost like Tocade but less sugary and more plush.

This inspired combination – if I do say so myself – came out of my remembering that Tresor famously uses a large amount of Iso E Super, a synthetic aromachemical known as a “floralizer,” meaning it makes floral notes smell rounder and more diffuse. It’s also used in a number of modern masculines, HeWood being one of them (I believe – I haven’t seen the formula). While I love the idea of Tuscany per Donna, I find that the current version lacks body, probably a reformulation issue. I wondered if HeWood could boost the woody vetiver section and give it more depth. Bingo! These two smell great together, more androgynous, sweet but not identifiably floral. Hat tip to Sophia Grojsman; I couldn’t have done it without you.

Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.